Re-evaluating ZZ Top’s "Rio Grande Mud" through Monitor Audio Bronze 100 Bookshelf Speakers

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Category: Art+Tech Art+Tech

Note: for the full suite of measurements for the Monitor Audio Bronze 100 loudspeaker performed in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, click this link.

April 2020

As revolutionary as the popular music of the 1960s was, some things didn’t change. When that decade ended, artists were still expected to be from somewhere rather than remaining regionally based.

In the United States in the 1970s, the hubs of the music industry were New York City, Nashville, and Los Angeles. Even the mighty Allman Brothers Band—which put Macon, Georgia, on the map for many White rock fans and helped put former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in the White House—relied on its strong fan base in NYC to break through in 1971.

ZZ Top, however, was a Texas band with little interest in making it anywhere else. They were from Houston, of Houston, and had no intention of leaving Houston. They even leveraged their regional roots by taking a Texas buzzard, a rattlesnake, and assorted livestock with them when they went on the road in 1977. ZZ Top was a “hat band” years before country artists like Dwight Yoakam and Alan Jackson popularized the Stetson onstage.

James Hale

Formed in 1969 by guitarist Billy Gibbons, organist Lanier Greig, and drummer Dan Mitchell, ZZ Top went through some early personnel changes. By 1972, the band had settled on a lineup that would endure until 2021: Gibbons, bassist Dusty Hill, and drummer Frank Beard.

Throughout those five decades, which culminated in Hill’s death last July, the trio maintained a veil of mystery surrounding its inner workings, inspirations, and refusal to move away from its Texas roots. That veil also obscured the reality that Gibbons was much more than just a guitarist so skilled that, at the age of 18, he had impressed Jimi Hendrix.

By the time Gibbons’s previous band, the Moving Sidewalks, landed a gig opening four concerts for the nascent Jimi Hendrix Experience, Gibbons had already dipped into experiences far beyond the imagination of most young men. Thanks to his father’s employment in the music industry, young Billy had visited the set of an Elvis Presley film, watched bluesman B.B. King in the recording studio, studied Latin percussion with the estimable Tito Puente in New York City, and taken animation lessons at the Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles.

As a budding guitarist, Gibbons encountered King again, who gave him some life-changing advice. After watching the teenager play, the veteran bluesman suggested he should lighten up on his pick attack and let the amplification do more of the work. In the years since, Gibbons has become known among fellow guitarists as a guy who uses the lightest strings in the business and has a signal chain that ensures his signature sound endures, no matter which of his customized guitars he plays.

ZZ Top

Gibbons has so many guitars that his longtime technician, Elwood Francis (who replaced Hill in ZZ Top following the bassist’s death) is unsure of the total count. Although Gibbons has never put his animation training to professional use, some of his guitar concepts show his visual artistry: one is made from wood salvaged from Muddy Waters’s childhood home; one is covered in white fur, and spins on his belt buckle; and another resembles an ancient barn wall. Even the hillbilly-length whiskers that Gibbons and Hill began to sport in 1979 seem like art projects now.

In retrospect, to call Gibbons a renaissance artist would not be a stretch, but back in 1972, when ZZ Top released Rio Grande Mud (London Records XPS612), it wasn’t so clear. The album quickly became a party favorite among my friends—alongside the J. Geils Band’s “Live” Full House, The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, and the Stooges’ Fun House—but few saw past the pile-driving rhythm section and the sweet buzzsaw tone of Gibbons’s guitar.

Fifty years later, a close listen to Rio Grande Mud reveals the trademarks and creativity that would make ZZ Top one of the most popular bands in rock. To take the full measure of the recording, I supplemented my well-worn original LP with a 2014 digital download (24-bit/192kHz FLAC, Rhino Warner Records/HDtracks) and settled in to hear it through a pair of Monitor Audio Bronze 100 bookshelf speakers ($675/pair, all prices in USD).

Monitor Audio

At a shade over 17 pounds each and measuring 14.8″H × 9.1″W × 12.8″D, the two-way Bronze 100s are a close match to the size and design of the speakers I had in my bedroom when I first brought Rio Grande Mud home, 50 years ago. The 100 features an 8″ C-CAM midrange-bass driver and a 1″ C-CAM Gold Dome tweeter on the front baffle, with Monitor’s HiVE II tuned bass port in the rear.

With a rated sensitivity of 87dB (2.83V/1m), a nominal impedance of 8 ohms with a 4.5-ohm minimum, and in-room frequency response of 37Hz–30kHz (-6dB), the speaker should be driven by amps with outputs of 30–100Wpc.

Effective bookshelf speakers were a godsend to teenagers in the early ’70s, when the marketplace seemed to be dominated by esoteric, high-end gear, with junk at the opposite end of the scale. But the small speakers that were available then seem puny compared to what’s on the market now—both in terms of sound and value. Even when filtered through 50 years, I can assert that my 1972 speakers didn’t render Rio Grande Mud with the clarity and range offered by the Bronze 100s. And, considering that the $400 I spent on my speakers back in the day now equates to about $2700, I definitely did not get full listening value for money.

Monitor Audio

Let me take you back.

When I learned about ZZ Top I was still grieving the loss of Hendrix, who died September 18, 1970, and Duane Allman, who was killed just over a year later. Both were outsized personalities with grand visions of what their music might become—characteristics that drew young listeners to put posters on their bedroom walls and pledge allegiance for life—and I really missed the distinctive tones of these two seminal electric guitarists. While Hendrix’s sound captured the energy and loop-de-loop chaos of his time, Allman’s was like liquid fire, particularly when playing slide guitar on At Fillmore East.

Gibbons didn’t grab me the same way, and now I blame my speakers. If I’d heard Rio Grande Mud through these Bronze 100s in 1972, he might well have joined Hendrix and Allman in my personal pantheon of guitar heroes.

James Hale

The difference is that the sweet spot for the Monitor speakers seems to line up perfectly with the sound of Gibbons’s Les Paul when he plays slide on “Just Got Paid,” a multilayered song he wrote with the band’s longtime manager/producer, Bill Ham. His tone pours out of the Bronze 100s with a gritty edge that makes it seem like there’s a vintage tube guitar amp in the room with you. What’s more, the speakers provide the kind of clarity required to fully appreciate the sound of the upstrokes Gibbons plays on the backing rhythm track. Those figures—easy to overlook if you’re focused on the rhythmic drive of Hill and Beard—speak volumes about Gibbons’s artistry.

Over the course of Gibbons’s career, his riff-based songs have dominated. The hooks of “Legs,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Tush,” and “Gimme All Your Lovin’” are delicious bits of ear candy. And almost everyone who’s ever ventured into a bar in the past 45 years knows his signature riff on “La Grange,” the paean to what became known as “the best little whorehouse in Texas.” Just as Allman had taken Albert King’s solo on “As the Years Go Passing By,” sped it up, and transformed Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” Gibbons turned a simple, four-note riff into the song’s unforgettable intro. His use of double-stop fretting and dominant upstrokes made all the difference. The secret of Gibbons’s ability to write hooks is no secret at all; he loves the blues, and knows its nuances so well he can transform a well-worn blues lick into something that sounds much grander.

On Rio Grande Mud, you can hear that riff magic on “Whiskey’n Mama”—another stunning example of his slide tone—and in the way that he turns Elmore James’s signature slide figure into his own statement of authority on “Apologies to Pearly.” This instrumental, which kicks off the second side of the album, sounds today like Gibbons’s answer to Jeff Beck’s “Jeff’s Boogie”—an unapologetic announcement of the arrival of a major talent.

ZZ Top

Slightly more subtle views of Gibbons’s prowess can be found on “Chevrolet,” a road song that combines cowboy poetry lyrics with an outrageous, Hendrix-inspired lead solo, and the long ballad “Sure Got Cold after the Rain Fell,” which is perhaps the best example of his guitar tone on the album.

“Chevrolet” also held clues to Gibbons’s skill as a Texas storyteller, to say nothing of his enduring love of cool cars. Hill sings his lyrics: “I took the road down to Cinco / Through that red Brazos River land / Done hit that freeway at sunset / Now the big city lights are at hand.” Such lines injected Gibbons’s personality, and made ZZ Top’s West Texas environment come to life. This talent would come to define the band for many, especially when ZZ Top began making tongue-in-cheek videos for MTV in the ’80s.

Beyond Gibbons’s guitar work and lyric writing, Rio Grande Mud stands out for the unity of the band’s sound. By definition, power trios like ZZ Top, Cream, or Hendrix’s Experience must be tight to succeed; there’s no place to hide or rest, and the rhythm section has to plug the gaps left by the solos. On rockers like “Francene,” the album’s opening song, and “Ko Ko Blue,” ZZ Top leave no gaps. In an era when bassists like the Allmans’ Berry Oakley and Cream’s Jack Bruce were stepping out of traditional roles to play melody lines and thicken harmonic structures, Hill was a relentless machine of a player, content to hold down a boogie riff for an entire song. Meanwhile, Beard had found a way to combine polyrhythms with propulsion, and could create as dense an attack as Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, or Ginger Baker, but without a lot of the flourishes these virtuoso percussionists played.

Played on larger speakers, like my standard Q Acoustics 3050i floorstanders, you feel ZZ Top’s rhythm section as much as you hear it. The Bronze 100s didn’t have that kind of heft: no surprise for bookshelf units. But they sounded solid; while Hill’s bass didn’t thunder, their inherent liveliness made it pop.

James Hale

I didn’t know what to expect—from the Bronze 100s, my NAD PP 2e phono preamplifier, or from my NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier-DAC—when I dropped the stylus on my 50-year-old copy of Rio Grande Mud. Like a vintage Chevy, it has some mileage on it.

Multiple plays have shaved some treble off the LP and added surface noise. There’s also a definite lack of clarity compared to the digital files, but it’s debatable whether that can be attributed to the amount of wear and tear on the vinyl. A little sleuthing revealed that the 2014 download may have been remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering. That said, the Bronze 100s still provided a lively listening experience with my old LP.

James Hale

Some of my fellow Boomers may well pine for the days when new bands like ZZ Top seemed to alter our musical horizons every month or so, but how well we heard that music back then might fall into the category of false memory syndrome. If I could climb into a DeLorean and journey back to 1972, I’d want to take Monitor Audio’s futuristic Bronze 100 speakers with me.

. . . James Hale
jamesh@soundstagenetwork.com

Note: for the full suite of measurements for the Monitor Audio Bronze 100 loudspeaker performed in the anechoic chamber at Canada’s National Research Council, click this link.